City Observatory has long challenged the popular narrative about the nature and effects of gentrification. Today, we are pleased to offer the final installment of a three-part commentary by our friend and colleague Alex Baca. (You can read part 1 and part 2 as well). Alex has worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in D.C., San Francisco, and Cleveland. She’s written about all of the above for Washington City Paper, CityLab, Slate, The American Conservative, Cleveland Magazine, Strong Towns, and Greater Greater Washington.
This week, City Observatory is addressing, in a series of posts, how Derek Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City doesn’t stick its landing. This third installment explains that though Hyra’s theories, ”black branding” and “living the wire,” are not inaccurate descriptors for what is happening in Shaw, Hyra’s work is not likely to dismantle the structures he purports to critique. Parts one and two were appear here.
Cultural Displacement In the Cappuccino City
Hyra began interviewing Shaw residents, attending ANC 2C and 2F meetings, and integrating himself with Organizing Neighborhood Equity D.C.—whose staffer, in this agreeable recap, does not disclose that Hyra was closely affiliated with her employer—eight years ago. At that time, I was assistant editor of Washington City Paper, another oft-cited source in Cappuccino City. Hyra references dog parks and bike lanes as signifiers of new, whiter residents in Shaw; we covered the ins and outs of these D.C.-specific memes so extensively that I wrote a cover story about the symbolism of bike-facility implementation, in 2011.
There is an enormous responsibility that comes with having an amplified voice on local issues, and that pressure has only been sharpened over the past half-decade by a constrained housing supply in cities where economic mobility is greatest. Everyone is scrambling for justification as to why housing is so expensive, because nearly all Americans are rent-burdened, regardless of where they live.
While D.C.’s economy, thanks to the entrenched presence of the federal government, had not tanked as significantly as the rest of the country’s, the city was most visibly bounding upward by the aughts. Around 2010, dog parks, bike lanes, and snowball fights were convenient shorthands for change in general—and no one likes change. I quickly learned that my peers (white; college-educated; rarely native to D.C. proper; and in possession of a certain cultural capital, if not financially stable personally) preferred to blame, say, restaurants serving truffled mac-and-cheese for undermining their neighborhood’s “authenticity.” This, of course, is a more accessible and more fun conversation than ones about D.C.’s housing production trust fund, municipal bonding capacity, or, trickier still, one’s own role in perpetuating a process they might regard as unilaterally culturally destructive.
To that end, Hyra is not wrong in concluding that amenities drive gentrification. As Jackelyn Hwang and Jeffrey Lin conclude in this working paper, people do move to be close to things they enjoy. But Hyra’s hyper-focus on luxury signifiers misses the basic things that people in general, regardless of income, want to be proximate to, like where they work, where their family and friends are, or religious and cultural institutions in which they are invested. Shaw offers proximity to these things to many people, and so it is a popular place to live. That it is perceived to be safer, cleaner, and more marketable than in previous decades stems from this popularity; that it is expensive speaks to the fact its supply—of legally affordable housing, of missing-middle housing, and of luxury housing—is not meeting demand.
Further, what a particular person values enough to pay a certain price to be close to will have infinite variations. A condo-owning white resident of Shaw may like that the neighborhood is just a few Metro stops from downtown D.C., may enjoy consuming pricey dinners, and may feel self-satisfied in their social-justice priors while touring by bike the murals that grace the buildings identified on the Heritage Trail. This, I gather, is Hyra’s prototypical “tourist in place.” But this isn’t the only persona contained within Shaw, or within any neighborhood. “Amenities” are not solely luxury; Giant, public libraries, corner stores, and bus stops are amenities, just as Whole Foods, WeWorks, third-wave coffee shops, and bikeshare stations are amenities. It is perhaps comforting to assign Whole Foods as “for” newcomers, and Giant “for” oldtimers. But the incalculable array of personal affinities that are inherent to each of us means that those assignations are often reductive. From there, the next logical step is to believe that taste is pathological, which completely misses how and why things like safe streets, which should be fundamental to all places, have become harbingers of the gentrification bogeyman.
Shaw is expensive to the point that newcomers and oldtimers alike may not be able to afford to stay in the neighborhood. And its current retail and resident mix is likely discomfiting to those who preferred the Shaw they thought they knew to the one they think they don’t. But the rent is too damn high for far-reaching, multitudinous, and sometimes counterintuitive reasons that are much greater than preferences alone. Depressed wages, supply and demand, exclusionary zoning, ill-fitting regulations, inadequate public transit networks, and the stubborn spatial mismatch between where jobs are and where people live are inextricably linked to why Shaw is what it is today. Given that our neighborhoods are ongoing referendums on the complexities of urban policy, history, and regional governance, Hyra’s satisfaction in taxonomizing $14 cocktails is frustrating.
There is a intersection of these points. It echoes the cultural-studies discourse of appropriation of the subaltern—what non-academics can instantly identify as the co-opting and subsequent commodification of everything from music, to food, to transportation (see: tech titans attempting to reinvent the bus). Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Willy Staley discusses how gentrification has become less about housing, and more about the bougie-fication of things associated with the poor, like ”raw water,” tiny homes, and kale:
“Unlike housing, poverty is a potentially endless resource: Jeff Bezos could Hoover up all the wealth that exists in the world, then do nothing but drink rainwater collected from the roof of his ‘70 Vanagon, and it wouldn’t stop the other seven billion of us from being poor. What this metaphorical gentrification points to instead is dishonesty, carelessness and cluelessness on the part of the privileged when they clomp into unfamiliar territory. When they actually profit from their ‘discovery’ and repackaging of other people’s lifestyles, it’s a dispiriting re-enactment of long-running inequalities. But what seems most galling isn’t that they’re taking dollars off the table. It’s that they’re annoying.”
The professor could argue that Cappuccino City is a monument to exactly that. He could also argue that parsing cultural and physical displacement, and whether they are actually triggered by gentrification, is not the point of his work. To be sure, no text is a panacea. But it is irresponsible to imply, as Hyra does in his conclusion, that Shaw-like housing crises, increasing segregation, and social discomfort are solvable primarily by more integrated third spaces and the continued preservation of—to say nothing of the addition of—affordable housing. That might work if the goal is to simply convey a veneer of social mixing, so that all existing oldtimers and newcomers feel better about the authenticity of their neighborhood. But authentic-feeling neighborhoods mean very little on a practical level if people, regardless of when they arrived, can afford to live in them.
Hyra, I think, would agree. After all, his book about the negative effects of “neighborhoods, but fancy,” was the the buzziest in a year of buzzy books on the topic. While I find that his text treats existing scholarship glibly, Hyra is clearly reacting to something powerful: the aggressive pace of change that leads people to feel displaced in their own neighborhoods, if they can afford, and choose, to stay. That he centers his book around that, and elevates the voices of those who are bearing the negative externalities of Shaw’s growth, should not be dismissed. As Staley puts it, “The poor are still gentrification’s victims, but in this new meaning, the harm is not rent increases and displacement—it’s something psychic, a theft of pride.”
And yet, this is why the case of Cappuccino City is so unfortunate. “Living the wire” and “black branding” are tantalizing terms. They have been treated by a number of outlets as legitimate discursive frameworks. The book itself is a quick and easy entry point into urban studies, and deals with the real, true upscaling of neighborhoods that many residents of formerly distressed cities are experiencing. But Hyra’s analysis of Shaw’s particulars—his “cappuccino lens”—rests on flawed premises of originality, and does not provide meaningful policy blueprints. Rather, it reinforces the popular, yet surface-level, notion that newcomers’ tastes and preferences are the primary drivers of unaffordability and displacement, and treats neighborhoods as closed loops rather than components of regional ecosystems.
Some planning theorists have been dismantling this unproductive paradigm for years. Their work has gone unacknowledged. We are desperately in need of a prominent narrative that blows it up for good. We cannot craft good policy without first establishing an ideological framework that appropriately considers what is going on in America’s Shaws, so that we can future-proof neighborhoods, cities, and regions for as many scenarios as possible. That necessitates admitting that both increased housing supply and strategies to mitigate physical and cultural displacement have a role in contemporary urban policy. Hyra had that opportunity. He squandered it to double-down on an out-of-date discourse.
If the “cappuccino lens” is anything at all, it’s a definitive claim that the consumptive preferences of new residents are what drive neighborhood change. This is primarily a disservice to Hyra’s subjects. But it’s also is a mindset that leads people in expensive, gentrifying, and distressed neighborhoods to—understandably—protest new housing. At its worst, it’s an axis that pays lip service to cultural appropriation while lazily lumping together social discomfort and physical displacement. It’s the idea that bike lanes, or dog parks, or new restaurants cause rents to rise in isolation. It’s a view that conveniently dismisses America’s legacy of constitutionally implemented, segregationist housing policies, and is one that’s unwilling to imagine what truly equitable, regionwide investment might look like. It’s one that is too cowardly to take to task the massive levels of exclusion perpetuated by relatively wealthy neighborhoods and suburbs, which have, in turn, resulted in heretofore unimagined pressures on walkable, inner-city neighborhoods.
In castigating newcomers, the “cappuccino lens” sets an impossible bar for authenticity and belonging while tokenizing long-term residents. It mocks in its ignorance the ways that federal actions introduced segregation where there was none, as well as the country’s legacy of fair housing and integration efforts. It wrings its hands, but is not likely to testify in support of housing and transit development that so often meets death by a thousand public-comment cuts. It elevates the threat of displacement without examining it.
The “cappuccino lens” is a way of viewing neighborhood change that allows us as individuals to avoid interrogating—and thus, changing—the structures and systems from which we’ve benefited. It’s an explanation that always points the finger at someone newer, someone fancier, someone richer, someone with even more precious taste.
These are commonly held beliefs that have guided local-level politics for decades, ones that have directly contributed to the pain and loss of community that Hyra extracts through his interviews. These are the entrenched views against which we must organize to demand better, more fair, and more just investment in basic goods, services, and human needs at local, state, regional, and federal levels. It’s time this disastrous ideology had a proper name. Fortunately, the frothy and whitewashed “cappuccino lens” fits the aesthetic splendidly.
Editors note: This post has been revised to add references to the earlier commentaries in this series.